09/11/2014 03:41 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

How to Be a Leading Lady

Right now I envy anyone who lives in Denver or has the chance to be at that city's Center for the Performing Arts anytime between Sept. 12 and Oct. 26, when Meredith Willson's The Unsinkable Molly Brown debuts in a contemporary reimagining written by multiple Tony-winner Dick Scanlan. Directed by the similarly gifted/garlanded Kathleen Marshall, the new Molly stars Beth Malone, chiefly known for embodying the adult Alison Bechdel in Fun Home, Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's musical adaptation of cartoonist Bechdel's remarkable graphic memoir, which is now slated for a Broadway run.

Shortly after she unexpectedly landed the role of Molly Brown, I spoke with Malone before her final matinee in a San Diego production of Annie Get Your Gun. Librettist/book writer Scanlan was also gracious enough to share his thoughts on finding his newest leading lady. The following is edited and interwoven from those separate conversations, taking some liberties with time and space.

What did you anticipate when you first saw Beth Malone for her Molly Brown audition?

Dick Scanlan: I was intrigued, because the impression I got from the casting director was that she really wanted to come in, that she was bringing herself in from California, and that she had a real hunger to be seen for this role. And knowing her work only from Fun Home, I didn't do that math; I didn't know where that hunger lived in her.

Beth, you flew yourself in to audition for Molly Brown. How did you find out about it?

Beth Malone: A really good friend of mine, Heather Lee, [who's] like my unofficial manager -- she's always looking for things for me. [She was in] Annie Get Your Gun in Sacramento with me, and she told the people in Sacramento, "You have to do Molly Brown next, [Beth's] gotta do Molly Brown." I had never seen or really listened to Molly Brown. I had the original cast recording track of "I Ain't Down Yet," just because I thought it was an amazing piece of musical theater history. It's just nuts. [Tammy Grimes, the original Molly] doesn't sing a frickin' note; she just kind of, like, breathe-sings the entire thing, but you can tell that she's, like, in it. I've had it on my iPod for years because I just loved what it was. It's like, it's not good singing -- she sounds half crazy and half drunk -- but it's an amazing, amazing track -- it's commitment.

Dick Scanlan: The moment Beth began the audition -- she did something very, very smart, because the first thing she sang was "I Ain't Down Yet," which begins with this long spoken patter, the kind of thing that Meredith Wilson is very famous for, like he did in [The Music Man's] "Trouble." It's very difficult and intricate, because the rhythms are very specific but it has to sound like that person's natural syntax and way of speaking.

Beth Malone: When I went in, I was like, I just have the essence of that recording and I was going to infuse it with my audition. They were like, "It's a really hard piece, why don't you just stand behind the piano and go over it," because it's a patter song, and it's in this meter, right? If you're looking at the sheet music, it's nearly impossible to get to what this song is supposed to be: It's an anthem of purpose, it's an anthem of a person who has this string tied to their solar plexus that is pulling them forward toward something, they don't even know what, but something -- so to stand behind the piano and give it any kind of justice was sort of impossible. So I was like, "You know what? I'm just going to do this." Because if I fall, then I fall.

Dick Scanlan: She had it sort of on a cheat sheet; she'd written it out herself in her own handwriting, as opposed to the sheet music. When she got to the body of the song where it goes into melody, in a sort of very thrilling way she just hurled the paper across the room and launched into song. And it was just so clear that on some profound level this woman Molly Brown and what she stands for really lives inside her.

Beth Malone: I felt the room change. I felt them kind of going, Who is this? You know, I came in late in the audition process. They were at the end of their audition process, the first of my auditions. I felt like maybe they were like, Yeah, yeah, we'll see her, whatever, not that it's gonna come to anything. Especially because Fun Home had just happened, and what I do in Fun Home is so vastly different than this, and so vastly different than kind of anything else in musical theater. It's really sort of anti-flashy musical theater role, the anti-performative role. I mean, the less I can do in Fun Home, the more successful I feel.

Dick Scanlan: I was incredibly impressed with her in Fun Home, but when I [saw it I was there] to support my friend who wrote it [Tesori, Scanlan's collaborator on Thoroughly Modern Millie], watching it from a writer's perspective so that afterwards I [could] sit with my friend and say, "These are questions I have; these are things that thrilled me." And the performances, unless something stuck out at me as a problem -- which actually in Fun Home didn't, it's a very well performed show -- weren't what I would have focused on. And Beth has a very specific role, because in a way it's all happening inside her, but she exists outside the narrative for much of the play -- and then at a crucial moment she jumps right into the narrative, and actually at the climax of the play sings one of the climactic songs dramatically -- and I observed how cannily she did that.

But Molly Brown's the exact opposite; Molly Brown's the center of the play, and Molly Brown is someone who sees herself as the center of the universe. She is someone who, even as a very poor uneducated 18-year-old girl, has a strong sense of having personal power. That's something she knows about herself. And it's a source of great frustration, because she's got to figure out how to bridge the chasm between the power she feels inside of herself as a person, and her circumstances, which are utterly powerless. She is a woman in the late 19th century who comes from abject poverty. So it's quite a chasm to bridge -- and she bridges it. And of course all the qualities that allow her to bridge it also became the qualities that cause problems for her in her life.

Were there any surprises in the audition?

Dick Scanlan: You know, Beth is this fascinating-looking person. She's actually quite beautiful. She's got this Audrey Tautou/Audrey Hepburn sort of gamine bone structure going on. She can really look quite delicate; she can also seem quite tomboyish. She's got a wonderfully transformational ability, which is great for a character like Molly Brown, who really transforms herself. And vocally her attack on the role was what I'd always been dreaming of but what I think [Molly's musical director] Michael Rafter and I couldn't articulate -- sometimes you can't articulate something until you hear it. Because there is a sense of country in the way she sings the role, and yet there's a real Broadway foundation to it. There's no question she's got Broadway/musical theater chops in her voice, and yet she has an authentic way of phrasing the songs with a kind of country flavor that really liberates them in an interesting way.
Meredith is a very, very complicated writer, because he writes really, really complex songs in 4/4 time in the key of C. It's an odd thing; if someone can't really deliver the complexity, the dimensionality of the songs don't come to full light. And Beth seemed to understand that underneath what seems like a very straightforward musical approach are a lot of really strange twists and turns in the way that he wrote. He was a very serious musician. She seems to really bring that out in a wonderful way that was very exciting to us musically.

I imagine that's quite rare.

Dick Scanlan: My sense is that with Beth it was intuitive and emotional -- which is always best -- and not an intellectual choice about his music. Meredith is a strange writer, because he wrote this masterpiece called The Music Man that everybody knows, and then he wrote Molly Brown, which actually was a very big hit, that people kind of know, and then a few other shows that really nobody knows, so people don't fully understand the writer he was. They literally don't understand the way he wrote. We have such familiarity with the way Richard Rodgers wrote or even Fritz Loewe or [Leonard] Bernstein -- and I wasn't [familiar with Meredith's approach] either. It was when I really began to study the score of this show that I began to think, My God, there's so much really complex music theory going on in a song that is in C major! The way he's choosing to get from one chord to another is so complicated -- at times not successfully so, most of the time kind of thrillingly so. It's why he can write a show like Music Man that on one level you can describe as Americana -- but the people in that show and the themes in that show are very complex. Underneath the Americana, just like any American town you go to anywhere, are very complicated people living very complicated lives. In a way that's how he wrote music.

It sounds like something that's going to be exciting to develop.

Dick Scanlan: When you cast someone who's very singular -- and Beth is, really singular -- who she is and her approach to the role will inform then how the role evolves. That's what you want: You want someone who's bringing that to the table, because that becomes very exciting. And it will even affect the arrangements of the songs, which then affects the orchestrations of the songs.

Beth, Fun Home is going to Broadway. Molly is likely headed for Broadway too, though maybe you're not allowed to consider that while you're still in the dream stages of building the unique animal that the Denver production is going to be. This is what we call a first-world dilemma: How would you choose between them?

Beth Malone: The thing is, when you get involved at this level -- Molly Brown could take five years to get it in. I could age out of the part, they could want Reba McEntire, I mean, a lot of things could happen -- or it could go next year, and they could offer it to me and I would have to make a choice -- that's like another unlikely, unlikely scenario. It's possible. Everything is a possibility -- life has been so surprising in the last few years that I can't say, "No, that won't happen" -- because anything, literally, can happen now.

I think you and Dick are going to have a really fruitful collaboration.

Beth Malone: I can't wait to get in a room with him.

Dick Scanlan: I'm really very excited to get in a rehearsal room with her. She's unexpected, and she's going to be unexpected in the role, and everything about the person Molly Brown was unexpected. Molly Brown should never have happened: Someone whose father dug ditches for the gas company literally on the muddy banks of the Mississippi River should never have ended up being one of the wealthiest women in America who kind of changed the face of philanthropy in this country. That should not have happened, and it did. And partially it happened because, quite honestly, we live in a kind of great country. And partially it happened because she was kind of a great person. And you put those two things together, and you get a musical.